Franklin’s Forgotten Triumph: Scientific Testing

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It is clear, though, that he had no real insight into why the trances worked. Still, he seems to have understood from the beginning that he needed an explanatory model, and his doctoral dissertation, De Planetarium Influxu ("On the Influence of the Planets"), which he published in 1766, attempted to provide one. In its 48 pages he connected hypnotism with a kind of primitive description of cyclical activity in the biosphere, such as heat waves or storms; electricity; magnetism; and even a variant on Newton’s understanding of gravity. He later named the resulting model gravitas animalis , or magnetismus animalis —animal magnetism.

What was called for, he realized, was some sort of impartial test. The patients were literally blindfolded.

It gave the effects he achieved a certain gloss, electricity, magnetism, and gravity being the high-prestige research areas of the day. We now know that he plagiarized much of this from one of the most prominent and well-regarded English physicians of the previous generation, Richard Meade (1673-1754). He also mixed in some alchemy, proposing that there existed a universal “fluid” in all living forms that could flow from one organism to another and affect a patient’s health. It wasn’t the first time observable phenomena were linked to absurd explanation, and as time went on, Mesmer became more and more invested in it, even as it caused him to be increasingly shunned by more conventional healers.

When he arrived in Paris, the French medical establishment, alarmed as much by his entrepreneurial success as by his unfounded theories, denied him a license to practice medicine in the city. He got around it by partnering with a disciple, the already licensed Charles d’Eslon. Mesmer was soon at the height of Paris society, collecting followers who included the young French aristocrat and American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as no less a patron than the queen, Marie Antoinette. He was lionized by the glamorous, and Mozart made references to him and his magnets in his comic opera Così; Fan Tutte . So great was his popularity that his name quickly entered the language, in the form of the verb mesmerize .

By 1784, six years later, Mesmer felt secure enough to propose building a hospital for animal magnetism treatments, and he quickly raised 340,000 livres, a prodigious sum. This development, his ever-greater fame, his sway over the queen, and the constant lobbying against him by established physicians finally prompted King Louis to establish a commission to investigate his claims.

In March 1784 four doctors were selected, among them Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, for whom the guillotine was named. The four physicians asked the Academy of Sciences to add some scientists to their number, and five were chosen, including Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the discoverer of oxygen, and Franklin, known throughout the world as the man who had discovered electricity. The king asked Franklin to head the commission.

Franklin was by now arguably the most famous man in the Western world. When Jefferson went to Paris to replace him, he wrote that “more respect and veneration [was] attached to the character of Dr. Franklin than to that of any other person, foreign or native.” He was also a man who lived in considerable pain. He suffered from gout, boils, and decades of hard living and was mostly confined to his house in Passy, a mile from Paris and seven miles from the king’s seat at Versailles. Why he took the assignment is not clear. It may be he felt obligated to the king. He had just talked Louis, the most autocratic and traditional monarch in Europe, into funding a war of liberation fought by the most revolutionary democracy in the world. Or it may be that whatever the condition of his body, his mind and his curiosity were as vigorous as ever.

As was usually the case, Franklin saw deeper into the matter than anyone else, and at the outset he wrote what may be the first recorded commentary on hypochondria and psychosomatic medicine. On March 19, before the commission formally began its work, he wrote that “delusion may . . . in some cases be of use while it lasts. There are in every great rich city a number of persons who are never in health because they are fond of medicines and always taking them whereby they derange the natural functions and hurt their constitutions. If these people can be persuaded to forbear their drugs in expectation of being cured by only a physician’s finger or an iron rod pointing at them, they may possibly find good effects though they mistake the cause.”